Let’s take a look at a few plants that are consistently present at disturbed sites, such as a yard, sidewalk, park, ditch and field. How many can you find at your local green space? Use this website as you explore…
These are great beginner foraging plants!
1. Plantain (Plantago spp.)
Plantago species or what we call “plantain” has little to do with the tropical banana-like plants. This herbaceous plant has all of it’s leaves emerge from a central point on the ground. We call this formation a “basal rosette”. In other words The leaves do not climb up the flowering stalk or any other part of the plant. The seed stalks to emerge upward from the center.
- The plants leaves form a basal rosette.
- The plant has several prominent veins that run from the stem to the tip of the leaf. These veins protrude on the underside of the leaf.
When the leaf is carefully ripped, the inner veins will hold the pieces together as pictured.
Where will it be growing? Plantain loves packed, poor soils. I most commonly see plantatin in a gravel driveway, a mowed lawn, around campsites, beside a concrete sidewalk and other similarly disturbed areas.
We have multiple species of plantain and I often see more than one species growing in the same space. Some of the most common species I find are plantago major, plantago lanceolata and plantago rugelli.
Plantain may be one of the most common and powerful herbs in your yard. I say this because I know plantain is used more than any herb in my household and this is probably true for others. It’s powerful in the sense that it affects a lot of peoples regular lives. Not only is this a mild, nutritious green anytime of the year, it is wonderful at minimizing the pain and inflammation associated with bug bites. I find it really shines for ant bites and bee stings where it has the capability to neutralize formic acid. Generally I enjoy this as a cooked green and cut up well because of the strong parallel veins in the leaf.
I’ve seen people who normally swell quite a lot after a wasp sting circumvent all swelling when plantain was applied fast enough. There are many species of plantain that will work including at least a handful native to North America. Consider it nature’s band-aid! A spit-poultice is one of the easiest ways to utilize this wonderful medicine as pictured below when one of our youth survivalists got a bee sting on the foot.
Plantain may also help heal the gut and sooth mucosa in the body, acting as a demulcent .
2. Dandelion (taraxacum officinal)
Dandelion is another basal rosette that comes from the French term dante de lion meaning “tooth of the lion”. This refers to it’s jagged, toothed margins (or leaf edges). Dandelion identification can get a bit tricky, so read carefully! Dandelion’s are most commonly found in similar habitats to plantain, such as compacted soil, gravel areas and edges of parks and fields.
Most kids can easily recognize a dandelion flower by the age of 5 or 6 in the rural south. It seems to be an icon of childhood, blowing the seeds of the head while making a wish. In fact most plants can be easier to identify while they are flowering, let’s look at some non-flowering traits first.
As stated, dandelion is a basal rosette (see plantain for description). The leaves can be mature anywhere from a 1/2″ long up to over 1 foot! Most mowed spaces and disturbed sites have leaves ranging from 2.5 inches to about 7 inches long with a prominent midrib vein extending all the way to the tip. This vein may have a splash of reddish-purple color.
The leaves are tender with the teeth pointing towards the base or center of the basal rosette. Each leaf will have a slight “v” shape that channels water straight towards the root mass along the midrib vein. Think of this as having a “shovel” look to the leaves. The leaf margins can be extremely jagged , almost lobed. Compare pictures below.
Now on the flowering characteristics:
Dandelion flowers will only have one flower per flower stalk. The stalks (often miscalled the stems) are hollow and when picked or cut can exude a small amount of milky, plant latex. (latex allergy warning?)
Dandelions medicinal magnitude dates back as far as history. It’s a bitter green, but very healthy to consume raw or cooked – cooking helps to reduce the bitterness. Bitter herbs can help in many ways including to simulate the digestive system to help easy digestive complaints. Dandelion flower fritters are a common practice among foragers. The root and the leaf can be used as a diuretic and will also help replace the potassium lost in the diuretic action. Apparently an old English name for this plant states this well, it was called “piss-n-lit”.
- Jagged edges with most of the teeth pointing toward the center of the plant
- Leaves “V” or create a shovel like scoop for water to run down midrib vein
- Basal rossette
- Milky sap in the stems
- One flower on each hollow stalk
- Can be caught blooming anytime of the year
3. Sorrel (oxalis spp)
Wood sorrel is a small plant that can be found in disturbed areas but also mature forest depending on the species. Almost always mistaken for a clover (trifolium spp.) at first glance, it does have leaves that are radially symmetric in groups of 3.
Clover’s leaves (actually called leaflets) are described as round, while wood sorrel’s leaves will be perfect little hearts. If you don’t already know this plant, you will love the sour flavor even the smallest leaf imparts. Wood sorrel has a yellow flower with 4 petals as opposed to clover’s pom-pom shaped flowers. Enjoy this delicious snack in moderation as they are high in oxalic acid. Sheep sorrel is just as common but has a different leaf shape.
- Heart shaped leaflets in groups of 3
- Small yellow flowers in the warm parts of the year
- Green herbaceous stems, never woody.
4. Clover (Trifolium spp)
Perhaps a part of everyone’s childhood (at least where I grew up in America) is the clover. With an impressive number of species worldwide, we most commonly see white, red and pink flowered species.
Clover is a great example of a compound leaf that features 3 small roundish toothed (Look closely!) leaflets. This is a good time to note, that not every rule will always apply. A perfect example of a plant breaking “botany” rules is the coveted 4-leaf clover. If you look at a clover that has had a chance to grow tall, those compound leaves will alternate up a flowering stalk. Species identification can be difficult without a flower, but luckily all the clovers in North GA are edible. Leaves of certain species are much narrower than others and overall growth habit are the biggest differences.
The flowers resemble a “pom pom” or a ball shaped head comprised on many small flowers. White clover (characterized by it’s white flower) is most common in mowed parks and lawns. Another species, just as common called red clover has a soft pink flower color. See picture above.
Most clover sits below the mow line, but red clover in rich soil I’ve seen over 3ft tall!
One “look-a-like” to know is the medic plants (Medicago spp) like black medic. This is small plant with yellow flowers (similar but different than that of wood sorrel). With black medic the leaves do no all come from a single point, rather 2 of the 3 leaves are dropped down the stem slightly so that plant is no radially symmetric.
Red Clover (trifilium pratense) is used today for menopause symptoms, high cholesterol levels, or osteoporosis.
- Compound leaf with 3 roundish leaflets that are finely toothed (these are classic characteristics of the legume/pea family)
- Many flowers make up a “pom pom” shaped flower head
- Often has a chevron or “V” markings on the leaflets
5. Chickweed (stellaria media)
Most commonly chickweed grows in disturbed moist soil – like a raised garden bed, the the shady side of your house and in my row gardens. A chickweed grows in most states of the U.S and this tender plant loves the cool weather of Spring and Fall. It tends to hide away in the heat of summer making it almost impossible to find mid-summer. As soon as the cool weather of fall returns, so does chickweed.
Chickweed is a wonderful herb! A cooling healer that is great for the skin (commonly used in skin slaves). We had abundance in the garden that remained out and available through the entire winter and had several flushes of flowers. With at least 4 species occurring in the southeast, this is a good one to know. There are several distinct characteristics that are easy to recognize on this nutritive “spring” green. The common names tend to overlap a bit, but stellaria media (common chickweed, often called European chickweed) came up in the garden, while stellaria pubera (star chickweed or giant chickweed) comes up throughout the forest. As the name suggests, it is a great snack for our feathered friends.
The flower can be a bit tricky, when first presented most people almost always answer the “how many petals does it have?” question with an answer of 10. The looks to be so at first glance but upon deeper examination you will notice the petals come in pairs touching together at the base of the petal, almost making the pairs into little heart shapes. This is more noticeable on some flowers than others, always check multiples if you can. Flowers are typically about 1/4″ inch and white. (Star chickweed will grow larger flowers).
Another helpful identification feature is a single line of hairs present on the stem. Examine closely in the sunlight, avoid chickweeds and look a likes that are all “hairy”. On common chickweed their single line of hairs may move on the stem at the nodes but will continue throughout the stem.
Chickweed is extremely nutritious and has been used a dietary supplement to help people lose weight. This speaks to it’s nutrient content – especially a lot of those minerals our bodies need. In fact, mature chickweed taste very “earthy” due to the high concentration of minerals. Young tender growth is consumable raw or cooked as long as it is picked from a clean area.
- Flushes in Spring or Fall
- White flowers that have 5 petals (though it looks like 10)
- Single line of hairs coming up the stem (look closely!)
- Opposite leaves